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Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan

Posted: November 17, 2010 12:00 PM

Most companies do little for gender diversity. That's the news from McKinsey this week. A pathetic 18 percent of the companies they surveyed say that their executive teams visibly monitor programs for gender diversity -- even though they know that those programs make a difference.

It's yet another example (if we needed one) of just how blind corporations can be to their own interests. Because in the same month we've seen one of the most intriguing and provocative pieces of research to come along for a long time. It started when a team from MIT, Carnegie Melon and Union College set out to look at collective intelligence. Was it even possible to measure it? And, if you could, wouldn't that mean that you could also measure what did -- or did not -- make the same team more, or less, intelligent?

Great questions. With wonderful results. Turns out, yes you can measure collective intelligence -- which the team (very smart but perhaps not wildly imaginative) called 'c'. 'C' outperforms the average intelligence of the group -- which is good because otherwise there would be no reason to do teamwork at all. But what's really interesting was what did not make the teams smarter: motivation, group cohesion or satisfaction. In other words, it didn't seem to make a big difference how happy the group felt about itself. What did make a difference were these three things:

1. Social sensitivity of group measures. Yes, it matters whether or not people are aware of each others' feelings.
2. Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking. Yes it mattered whether everyone got a fair hearing.
3. The proportion of women in the group. Yes women do make a difference, a positive difference. Even if companies aren't smart enough to pay attention.

Two important things to note: first, this did not appear in HR Monthly, or Wish Fulfillment Weekly. It was published in Science which means it was analyzed, dissected and peer-reviewed. You can infer it's probably not flaky. (It also might be read by scientists who, as a group, still have a long way to go to recognize the value women offer.)

Second, it was sent to me by Thomas Seeley whose wonderful book on bees I wrote about earlier. He said this data reminded him of bees. I was just thrilled that it reminded me of real life.